Culture & Style Organisational Systems

Did you put the dustbins out?

Have you ever sat in a meeting knowing that something important was being overlooked, or wanting to give your opinion on something but feeling inhibited lest your view seems petty or out of place? Recently, a simple domestic oversight set me wondering to what extent all of us are constrained by anxieties about how others might perceive us.

The lift doors slid open and I stepped out into the reception of a major global organisation. Business entrances are always interesting to me, they say so much about a business and how it operates. This one was designer organised: stylish, precise, clean and highly efficient. My badge had already been printed for me and the receptionist was polite and helpful. I sat down, picked up the Financial Times and relaxed; I was early. My mind wandered … something was missing. Something from the agenda for my meeting? Something at a later meeting?

No, I realised it was dustbin day at home and I’d left without putting out the bin out. Just an irritating domestic issue; I should have done it last night, but hadn’t. No problem though. I’d call home. My wife works from home, so she would catch the dustmen.

I dived into my briefcase, grabbed my phone and switched it on. The start-up tones reverberated around the reception area; a few heads turned. I looked up and saw people looking at me – all well dressed, smart suits, intelligent conversation going on. I suddenly felt shy and inadequate. Everyone was listening to me and I was about to ask my wife to put out the dustbin, when in my mind they were all busy talking about share prices, acquisitions, major business issues, not the trivia of normal life! My inner voice went on a rampage … they, of course, did not struggle with the normal domestic issues I seemed to fight with; they looked together, calm, composed, and the sort of leaders we all could trust … their dustbins were organized!

… I never did make the dustbin call. My appointment arrived and I was whisked up in the internal lift to the seventeenth floor. However, on the journey home it did set me thinking. Why was I so bothered about making that call? Was it my shyness, my perceived lack of organization, when all about me looked organized, serene, ‘together’ and way beyond the minor issues I was struggling with that morning? Was it simply a learning experience for me about being myself; being confident and relaxed regardless of the situation, the size of the issue, or the public arenas I might find myself in?

Maybe, but perhaps there was something else too. Just perhaps, the scenario that morning reflected what got said or not said in that particular organization. Were ‘dustbin’ conversations allowed, or were they viewed in some way as too trivial, unacceptable in the hallowed halls of large business? Was the same true of other information: was there knowledge, awareness, key data this company needed but people felt somehow unable to share it?

How do people air their concerns? Who listens and how is the information treated? Could something that might be perceived as trivia, or not important at that time, be the unsaid point that creates a fault line that runs right through a company? Is this some part of the Enron, Anderson or Parmalat puzzle?

How do things become hidden in a company, and what are the spoken and unspoken rules? Or is it just embarrassment and lack of social skills that prevents some subjects from being aired? It seems to fit with many of the ethical issues facing large companies. Standing out against the current thinking, mind set, culture and accepted practice can be difficult and sometimes threatening. It is tough to be the one to raise the flag and speak out; it is far easier to do so with wisdom after the event, but clearly not helpful then.

A week later I’m in the reception of another major global business, antenna up. It’s a male security guard: this doesn’t bode well if my hypothesis from last week is correct. Yet the atmosphere is relaxed, open. Maintenance men mix with visitors, friendly conversation and banter is exchanged. In the lift with the CEO’s PA, I talk of my last reception experience – ‘Ah well’ she says, ‘it wasn’t always like it is here. Now we want the company to be open and everyone to share their views and concerns’. Oh, I mull as the lift doors open, how I wish it had been today that my dustbins needed putting out!